Better to be the Head of a Dog than the Tail of a Lion
Paving a New Path in the Central African Republic
For most Taiwanese, Africa is in another world, but an intrepid group of investors is now braving high risks in the war-torn Central African Republic to carve out their own legacies.
Paving a New Path in the Central African RepublicBy Jack Huang/The World 2.0
A landlocked country in central Africa, the Central African Republic was a French colony (known as Ubangi-Shari) before gaining independence in 1958. Its capital Bangui lies just across from the Democratic Republic of Congo, separated by the Ubangi River.
The country boasts an abundance of natural resources, but it has been wracked by war and religious conflicts for many years, leaving it in a state of dilapidation and more than 1 million people displaced from their homes.
Outside Countries Moving In
Historical and ethnic factors have contributed to the country’s disarray. The main conflicts in recent years have involved government troops, Muslim Seleka militias, Christian anti-Balaka militias and the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that operates on the borders of several countries. Neighboring countries (Cameroon, Chad, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) have also sent in troops, only complicating the situation.
Not surprisingly, behind the prevailing chaos, frequent civil wars and intrusions by other countries lie huge economic temptations.
“Whatever type of mineral you can name, they can all be found here, including gold, diamonds and even uranium,” a local businessman told me. He and other foreign investors only arrived in the country just over a year ago, when the end of the civil war brought slightly more stability to the capital.
In the vast territory outside the capital, however, armed conflicts and massacres still erupt with alarming frequency. Though the United Nations has deployed a peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, and many international organizations have set up offices there to provide aid, their effectiveness remains a question mark.
I found my stay there quite boring actually, because I spent most of my working hours inside the U.N.-controlled area and then was escorted by private car back to the hotel. Fortunately, I was introduced by a friend to a Taiwanese businessperson there, whom we’ll call “T,” giving me the chance to better understand local customs and get a glimpse of how both soldiers and civilians actually lived.
Overcoming Thorny Obstacles
T told me there are about 300 ethnic Chinese in the country at the moment, most of them concentrated in Bangui. The major foreign investment ventures have been Chinese-backed construction, communications and internet businesses, while some Taiwanese have set up trading companies or run restaurants or gambling operations.
“We will set up a KTV next month. We’ve already asked someone from Taiwan to bring the equipment. We’ve found a venue. I’ll take you there the next time you come,” T said, laughing.
I guess this is emblematic of the idiom “pushing aside thorns and chopping through brambles. (披荊斬棘)”
Setting up a business is extraordinarily challenging, given the harsh environment in which war can break out at any time and everything must be done with extreme caution. What’s most important is having a firm grasp of the area’s laws of the jungle and the rules of the game.
Members of international organizations, such as U.N. personnel, embassy personnel, or people with prominent international aid groups, all have several layers of protection and do not have to worry, at least relatively speaking, about outside disturbances.
They are normally escorted by military police when they go out and retreat to residential compounds secured by high walls that have western homes, gardens, swimming pools and restaurants. Though their work may require them to come in contact with local residents, they interact mostly with highly educated people or dignitaries, living in a world almost completely sheltered and isolated from local conditions.
Businesses, however, must be closely attuned to everyday life and markets and deal with ordinary people. As a result, people in business encounter more hardships and unknown challenges and have to be acutely sensitive to shifting political signals and social moods. Otherwise, they may not only end up losing their investments but also their lives.
Higher the Risk, Greater the Reward
Yet the higher the risk, the bigger the reward. Businesspeople able to stay in the country for years, whether from Taiwan or China, have been hardened by countless battles, amassing a wealth of experience in the process.
One ethnic-Chinese woman who has done business in Cameroon and speaks the local variety of French fluently is in Central African Republic to invest in property and aspires to build Bangui’s most luxurious hotel.
“The situation here may not be the most optimistic in the next five years. But the land has been bought and is your own, and the costs can be slowly recouped,” she says while lighting a cigarette.
“Most ethnic Chinese in the Central African Republic, aside from those who have been directly posted here, have come from Cameroon. There are too many Chinese there and it’s too competitive. There are more opportunities here.”
That may be a case of it being “better to be the head of a dog than the tail of a lion.” If you are able to gain traction in an extremely poor and underdeveloped area, you may be able to build your own business domain.
“Everybody knows this place is war-torn and dangerous, so why do people still come? It’s because there’s high risk but you can make a lot of money quickly,” says another businessman surnamed Chen.
Involved in the trading business, Chen imports many everyday items that arrive through ports in Cameroon. He drives a container trailer himself to pick up the container at the port and transport it to Bangui, a journey of at least three days that requires bribing several people along the way and dealing with corrupt customs and government officials. Still young, Chen has braved the trip several times.
Chinese Companies Backed by National Interests
The Central African Republic has “seemingly” been on track to develop under the incumbent president since early 2016 when there was a temporary truce in the civil war. Aside from Western powers and the country’s original French masters moving in, Chinese investment was the most aggressive in building a presence in this emerging market.
Chinese state-run companies’ involvement in basic infrastructure, government buildings and internet systems can be seen everywhere, with many Chinese nationals flowing into the country.
“I expect that by the end of this year, there will be at least 500 who come to Bangui,” says T, who runs a gambling operation.
That will create new opportunities and challenges for the group of Taiwanese entrepreneurs like T who arrived previously to start businesses, but I’m guessing they will still be able to continue what they were doing in this resource-rich tropical country and forge their own empires.
Africa is indeed a different world. The economic development history Taiwanese and ethnic-Chinese are currently writing, along with their footprints and stories across that world, will undoubtedly emerge as interesting legacies in the future.
About the Author
Jack Huang is a columnist for Crossing, a CommonWealth Magazine website dedicated to the views of young professionals in the Chinese-speaking world. Based in Bangkok, he has held information technology positions with the United Nations helping develop fuel management systems and supporting peacekeeping missions. He often travels to Africa for his job.
Crossing features more than 200 (still increasing) Taiwanese new generation from over 110 cities around the globe. They have no fancy rhetoric and sophisticated knowledge, just genuine views and sincere narratives. They are simply our friends who happen to stay abroad, generously and naturally sharing their stories, experience and perspectives. See also CrossingNYC.